Friday, July 7, 2017

The singer and the song

But it's a song. As Bob Dylan said in his Nobel Prize speech, "songs are unlike literature." "They're meant to be sung, not read." They're "alive in the land of the living." And "God Bless the USA" is a big sing-along song that comes alive when people — free people — choose to stand up and sing, not because Greenwood dictates that "it's time" they stand up and sing, but because they feel inspired by something about the melody and the key words — flag, freedom, proud, love, USA. No one's parsing the words.
Ann Althouse makes that point at the end of a careful parsing of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA".

I should begin by saying that I can't listen to the Lee Greenwood song. Not because I am offended but because I don't like it. Applying the Eddie Condon standard: it goes in like broken glass and not like honey. I take Althouse's point to be that people sing it in good faith meaning to be patriotic without worrying too much about what the songwriter meant in writing it. I think that's right. When Bruce Springsteen toured in 1984-1985 millions of fans enthusiastically shouted along as he sand "Born in the USA" and many, probably most, meant those words as simple, uncomplicated patriotism as they sang them even though Springsteen meant no such thing.

The same, contra Dylan, is true of literature. Probably more so than a song. Springsteen's defiant, anthem-like delivery of words of Born in the USA encourage what he likely sees as a misinterpretation. By contrast, you'd have to work pretty hard hear patriotism in the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen". You could do it though.

In some ways, a novel is more susceptible to such distortions for the "singer" is the reader. A song comes with an interpretation. That said, songs are reinterpreted by listeners and other singers much more easily than novels can be reinterpreted by readers. The season for this is context. A novel has a lot more of it than a song does.

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